If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last year, it’s that there’s a whole spectrum of humanity out there. People doing good things for bad reasons or bad things for good reasons. People helping out. People taking advantage. People strengthening relationships and people leaving them altogether. It is this spectrum of humanity that is evident in Bruce McDougall’s latest short story collection, Urban Disturbances.
The thing about Urban Disturbances is that you won’t like all the characters, but you’ll probably feel like you understand them. That’s the beauty of McDougall’s writing—its overarching empathy, and its keen understanding of the complexities of human nature. The attention to detail and the clever turns of phrase help, too.
Each story is a little literary gem—polished and full of shining facets and unique in character—but for me, the stories are also windows into our society, a society whose divisions and imperfections have become all too clear over the course of our pandemic. And despite what might seem a rather serious stance, the stories as a whole left me with a feeling of hope and humour—a sense that even in the darkest of stories, a little light always finds its way through.
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Read an Excerpt
From “Stalking Jack: A Suburban Fairy Tale”
Jack’s mother was pissed. Jack had lost his job again, the rent on the bungalow was due, and he’d sold the TV set and the VCR to some gorilla he’d met in a bar who showed him how to pull quarters from behind people’s ears and promised to pay him as so on as he got some cash. Jack’s mother told him he should get fifty bucks for the electronics. ‘And I want the money ASAP,’ she said. It was a drag, Jack thought, living with your mother.
Jack went back the next night to the bar and asked Mamood, the bartender, if he knew where the big gorilla lived. Mamood said he didn’t, but he told Jack that the guy would probably show up at the bar in a half hour or so.
By the time the gorilla arrived, Jack had pounded back three Schlitzes, for which he owed Mamood about fifteen bucks. By then, he’d forgotten why he’d come to the bar at all, until the large lad sat down beside him, put a paw around his shoulders and gave him a heartfelt squeeze.
Wriggling free of the big fellow’s embrace. Jack said, ‘I’m here to collect my fifty dollars.’
‘I don’t have no fifty dollars,’ said the galoot, ordering a double Jack Daniel’s and a Tuborg from Mamood, who didn’t mind running a tab for the big guy, because he knew he would get his money sooner or later. Even if he didn’t, Mamood wanted to stay on the gorilla’s good side, especially when he drank. He’d once seen the hulk eat a squirrel, tail-first.
Jack explained that he’d lost his job, run out of money, and his mother wanted to kill him. He said if he didn’t go home with something to show for the day’s assignment, his ass would be grass and he himself would be royally fucked. The big doofus reached into his shirt pocket and showed Jack a handful of beans. ‘ Take these, bud,’ said Man Mountain. ‘ They’re magic.’
That night when Jack went home, his mother met him at the door with her hair in curlers, a Came o Menthol hanging from the corner of her mouth and a rolling pin in her hand. ‘O mother of mine,’ Jack said, ‘you’ll never believe what happened.’
A few minutes later, slouched in a folding plastic lawn chair in the garage to which his mother had banished him, Jack wondered if perhaps he’d overestimated his mother’s capacity for understanding. He didn’t blame her for glaring at him with disgust when he reached into the pocket of his Levi’s, pulled out a handful of beans and scattered them across the kitchen table. It was a stupid thing to do. ‘Pick ’em up and go sleep behind the push mower,’ his mother said. She was waving the rolling pin over her head. Now Jack felt disgusted with himself. As he walked to the side door of the garage, he yanked the beans out of his pocket and hurled them into the yard. Then he sat back down in the lawn chair and went to sleep.
The next morning, Jack found an enormous beanstalk in the yard behind the bungalow. It was really big, by far the biggest beanstalk in the subdivision. So far, though, no one else had noticed it. It was a weekday, and all Jack’s neighbours were going through their morning rituals before they went off to work. Some of them looked out their windows but didn’t see anything because they were hungover or preoccupied with anxiety and stress. Some of them looked out their windows and noticed the beanstalk, but tried to ignore it, because they didn’t want to get involved. One or two of them phoned the police and reported a beanstalk growing out of the yard down the street. The police said they’d get right on it, but a rogue beanstalk didn’t rank high on the priority list of the stalwart men and women who uphold law and order in Jack’s burb.
Having lost his job and with nothing better to do, Jack climbed the beanstalk. He climbed for a long time. It wasn’t difficult because the hairs that grew out the side of the beanstalk were as big as Jack’s arm. It was almost like walking up a circular staircase. He walked up and up and up, around and around and around. He didn’t reach the top until two-thirty the next morning.
The first person he met was a pretty young woman named Rapunzel. It happened like this. Jack had just reached the top of the beanstalk and had crawled under a tree to take a nap in a grove near a tower made of stone, when an old hag came along and called out, ‘Rapunzel, let down your hair.’ From a tiny window at the top of the tower came a cascade of lustrous brunette hair. It reminded Jack of the advertisements for Miss Clairol in his mother’s movie magazines. When the locks landed at the old hag’s feet, up she climbed, hand over hand.
A half hour later, the old hag rappelled down the tower and scurried away like a window washer on a smoke break. Jack thought he’d give it a try. He hollered out Rapunzel’s name and told her to toss the hair back out the window.
When Jack’s half-bald mother fussed with her hair, it didn’t inspire him to great heights. Instead, Jack thought of a cobweb on a bowling ball. But this was a hairdo of a different ilk. Jack understood now why some women seemed so proud of their hair and fussed with it all the time, although a woman’s tresses had never inspired him to climb a building until now. Down it came, and up he shinnied.
When Jack peeked over the windowsill at the top of the tower, Rapunzel seemed disappointed to see him. But he soldiered onward. He smiled, catapulted himself into the room, performed a few magic tricks, filled out Rapunzel’s income-tax forms, installed crown moulding around the ceiling, washed her cashmere leggings with baby shampoo in the sink, vacuumed the Persian carpet, applied new putty to the mullioned window, replaced the hardwood flooring, tested the electrical outlets, re-installed the operating system on her computer, whistled a Bo Diddley tune as he cleaned the sink, nailed a couple of slabs of drywall to the ceiling to insulate the room from the cold weather, stood on his head and sang ‘Chances Are’ like Johnny Mathis, replaced the float in the toilet, then whipped up a four-course meal on Rapunzel’s hot plate.
‘Easy on the salt, Jim,’ said Rapunzel.
‘Jack,’ said Jack. ‘The name is Jack.’
(Continued in Urban Disturbances…)
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